Steelhead, Snake River Dams and the Oregon Way

Cameron Boaz with a winter steelhead.

Whenever I lose faith in government, I default to episodes of the early 2000’s TV hit, The West Wing. I know it’s not reality, but the show has offered me some level of solace when things are going sideways at the national level, and they’re going sideways.

From the president’s barbed State of the Union address to Speaker Pelosi’s subsequent tearing up of the speech papers, it’s hard to have hope that the needs of our sportfishing community will ever get met, because it’s bipartisan support we need, and it’s bipartisan support we’ve historically had. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is the perfect example of successful bipartisan policy that continues to work today. Nowadays, we’ve had a hard enough time elevating our issues to get them any attention at all. It’s pleasantly surprising how many times “Oregon” and “salmon” actually get mentioned in The West Wing.

“All Politics are Local” was on full display at Senator Ron Wyden’s town hall event on Presidents’ Day (2/17). There’s always a bevy of important issues that gets raised when the Senator comes to town; he’s committed to doing one town hall per county (there are 36 counties in Oregon) per year. It’s an ambitious goal, and he accomplishes it every year. Senator Wyden faced questions regarding veteran services, clean drinking water, and other local issues, as well as a plea from my fellow fisherman to require lights on farm equipment when navigating public roadways, as his daughter had perished in an accident just weeks ago. It really makes you question just how important are our fish issues?

What’s really impressive about this forum is that Senator Wyden is very attentive to community concerns where he feels he can have an impact. He asks his staff to get contact info for concerned constituents and follows up with them if there is a resolution to be had.

Of course we’ve been engaging all of our electeds on the peril of Snake River salmon for two decades, but it’s time we started changing the way we approach the issue. We’ve historically demanded dam breaching, not learning until 20 years later that this demand automatically throws up its own barrier to action. It closes off other stakeholders who have historically said, “Not on our watch,” to even having a discussion with fishermen and conservationists. We’re now requesting a series of conversations on how we, as a collective community, can best address the needs of all stakeholders to find common ground and move towards a solution. In the words of Senator Wyden, we do things the “Oregon Way.” It’s changed the direction of the conversation; we get to have those conversations now.

I took some steelhead fishing customers out on the water also on Presidents’ Day, which started our day out with an activity that wasn’t so heady. I think it may have been by divine design that the Wilson River was in perfect condition, and yielded steelhead, the same day Senator Wyden was holding his Tillamook County town hall. Oh, and sure, why not, the weather was fabulous.

We only had about two hours to fish before the town hall, and we had to come into the public forum with some credibility if we were to show the Senator that we were the real deal. Well, we hit two steelhead in the second hole we fished – one wild, one hatchery – and we were off to the races. We had one more chance, but apparently that fish didn’t want to become a celebrity. All three bites came on plugs, when everyone else was bobber-dogging bait or soft-beads.

It turns out my customers were nearly as excited to see what this town hall event was as they were to get on the water for a day of fishing. Fortunately, the town hall event wasn’t all that crowded so conservationists and fishermen were fairly well represented in the crowd. Tickets are drawn randomly, and our community got to elevate fish issues more than once at the event. When retired Idaho Fish and Game biologist broke the ice with his concern about the depleted returns of wild salmon back to his former home state, the Senator committed to convening stakeholders for this conversation. It was a monumental step forward for salmon.

That’s where we are; we need to be able to have a conversation with other river users before we can come to a solution. Although we’re still a long ways away from a collective solution, nobody really thinks that anyone in the region wants to see salmon wink out. And no conservationist wants to see the agricultural community compromised while recovering wild salmon populations, so we have common ground there. And we all need a reliable and affordable power supply so, once again, we have a good foundation to work with in order to solve this crisis together. Hopefully we get there.

There was a season, nearly two decades ago, when spring Chinook fishermen got to troll the Columbia River for its famed spring Chinook seven days a week, with a 2-fish bag limit. The run exceeded 400,000 salmon that year. Out-migrating salmon spilled over the top of dams due to the flood of ’96 and hit the ocean under favorable conditions, yielding a whopper return for all to enjoy. This year, the adult return will be less than a quarter of that (81,700 spring Chinook) with a mere 2,300 of those fish coming from the wild population. Anglers will only get to fish until April 10th if we’re lucky, with a 1-fish bag limit per day. Tell me that’s not a reason to rebound the wild salmon of Idaho. Good luck this spring, you’ll need it.

Want to highlight your fishery-related concerns In Oregon, or any concern for that matter? Go here to see where Senator Wyden will go next, or go here to see where Senator Merkley is headed next. Thanking our leadership is as important as it is asking them to help us out. They really are working for their constituencies.

About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association.

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